Picture of Mary Adams

Mary Adams

Mary is the co-founder of 3rd Space

Care Is An Act of Rebellion

Picture of Mary Adams

Mary Adams

Mary is the co-founder of 3rd Space

The evening shadows are deepening. A stillness envelops the room as I close the zoom screen. I have been talking with a close friend whose home is in Israel. Epicentre of one of the worst crises in modern times. A crisis that challenges our very humanity as it reveals the fragility of the global order. A crisis that’s happening on both a personal and global level.

This weekly rendezvous with my friend has torn away the false protection that distance imparts. Her perspective, and experience of the unending nightmare that Gaza has become, is rare among her people – her Jewish friends, family, and peers.

Consistently calling out her government on its support of violent illegal settlers, history of apartheid policies, indiscriminate use of lethal force, and more recently, its reckless lack of control of its own military, hers is rare voice. Most Israelis support this ‘war’. Yet she refuses to condemn her fellow citizens, including those condemning her. Brought up with a Zionist father, who fled the Nazis as a child, and having lost a brother in the army, she understands Israel’s historic trauma, and the complexity of emotions entwined in its history.

I can sense the sheer vulnerability and courage it takes to walk the lonely path she has chosen in refusing to bury her own humanity alongside the friends and family she has lost to war. It cuts like a knife through the political noise I, and many of us, are so easily distracted by.

Six terrible months have passed since the brutal attack on Israelis on October 7. Many times, throughout this staggeringly protracted conflict, I’ve wondered, ‘Why, given the emotional turmoil, broken friendships, shattered expectations of world powers, and alienation from the majority of her own people, has the trauma and rage evoked in Jewish souls around the world, not frozen my friend’s heart against her Palestinian neighbours?’

It’s a question I sense has significance beyond this war.

My friend is not alone. A growing cadre of voices, including many Jewish voices, are speaking out around the world. But in Israel, her circle is tiny. And as the horror of Gaza unfolds, she fears for her country.

“I now understand how it happened” she said quietly. I knew what she meant. She speaks of her fear for the human soul as history blindly repeats itself.

Sitting in the darkness alone, it occurs to me how we dehumanize ourselves in the demonization of the ‘other’. I am aware that something other, something deep and profound is driving my friend.

Unwelcome Truths

This ‘war’ in Gaza has gripped the world’s attention, despite itself. Why? Equally inhumane and violent conflicts have, and are being conducted in various locations, not least Ukraine. But somehow the brutal genesis of this crisis, its complex history, the brazen breaching of internationally agreed humanitarian conventions by a democratic country supported by the West, implicates us all. Bringing unwelcome truths to the surface.

Perhaps more than at any other time, the impotence and double standards of Western powers, familiar to the global south, are nakedly on display. What’s more this is happening on our watch, under our elected governments. So, willingly or unwillingly, we are bearing witness to a magnitude of destruction that should not be… and we know it.

Despite Netanyahu’s best efforts to conduct his ‘war’ out of sight, the unmediated images, first-hand testimonies streamed from hand-held phones for all to see, are destroying a belief many still hold, of a moral global structure.

Powerful tremors in the geopolitical status quo are creating fissures in the rules-based international order established after WW2. ‘Never Again’ was intended to mean never again for everyone. Although multiple examples of the abrogation of this have occurred over the last fifty years, internationally agreed conventions have never been brushed aside with such impunity, by the very actors who designed them, as in Gaza.

What does this mean for the so-called democratic world? Unable, or unwilling, to protect the most basic of human rights?

Gaza has had the effect of splintering societies, especially in the West. There are those who are engaging with geopolitical realities more than ever (particularly younger people). Those who are doubling down on archaic geopolitical beliefs and positions. And those who are consciously turning away from it all.

It Takes a Heinous Act

Recent history would tell us that it takes an act of heinous proportion for the world to stop and pay attention. The holocaust shook humanity to its core. It’s memory still haunts the Western world, appropriately. This stain on our species led to the formation of global agreements, especially in time of war.

On May 25, 2020 the very public murder of George Floyd, an African American citizen, at the hands of a white policeman, roiled the world, amplifying the message that black lives matter. As a result, a movement was birthed, public conscience was set aflame, and white immunity from the law finally became unacceptable.

History also shows us that avoidance morphs into indifference – at personal, societal, and global levels – especially among the most advantaged. Tragically it takes an inhumane act of magnitude to penetrate this.

Today this is Gaza.

What Makes us Human?

A zoom screen connects my life here in London directly to the suffering, senseless destruction, and political gaming taking place two thousand miles away. This ‘war’, bordering on a genocide, has raised so many questions. But the one that remains most persistent for me is what makes us human?

It could be argued that our human-ness is under assault. It often feels like we are floating, unmoored from reality, living in our own personal bubbles in a world where images and rhetoric can no longer be trusted. Where reality and unreality blur. Where media is designed to fuel our emotions, dull our intelligence, or simply capture our allegiance. Truth and lies coexist and many of us find ourselves responding, understandably, by simply turning away from it all. 

But is this, OK? Are we as a species losing touch with our capacity for empathy, our innate moral sensibility? Looking at our beleaguered planet, it would seem so.

We consider ourselves to be global citizens. Reaching across national borders daily from the comfort of our homes. But does global citizenry come with some responsibility? On a psychological level, the enormity of our crises can literally be overwhelming, creating burnout, depression, and hopelessness, especially in the younger generation. Cynicism rages across the internet, and irony provides a sanctuary.

 The counter side of all this is that our stress-laden Western culture induces intellectual laziness, attachment to comfort, to the superficial. Depth has fled, surfacing only in small oases. All this is a perfect cocktail for fuelling emotional indifference…in other words simply turning off. But can we afford to do this?

Should it be left up to young people to fight for their future? A generation disillusioned with current leaders, no longer accepts mainstream narratives on what’s possible, or even ‘right’. A whole subculture exists globally with thousands engaged in responding to our crises in various different contexts. Yet too many of us refrain from engaging at all. We suffer from the “too muchness” of it all.

The Liberal Progressive Conundrum

One would think that liberal progressives would be amongst those on the frontlines. And they are, to some degree. But surprisingly, LPs are also amongst some of the least engaged people.

 Included in this scenario are those who hold the valorized position of having ‘no position’. (Not to be confused with holding complexity). ‘Having no position’ is often erroneously believed to indicate a higher level of human development. But by ‘position’, I am not referring here to finite binaries, black and white beliefs, ideologies, or casual opinion. But rather the willingness to engage with one’s own innate sense of morality, with the big questions of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. In other words, the precious burden of wrestling with our own soul.

Switzerland has showed us that ‘neutrality’ is not an elevated attribute!

The moral crisis that the ‘war’ between Israel and Gaza has surfaced for the West, is a particular dilemma. A new acronym has emerged applied to progressives, PEP – “progressive except for Palestine”.

Technology – False Manna from the Gods

Some very smart progressive thinkers believe that technology is the answer to our planet’s most critical issues. To me this is false manna. Futuristic theories designed to jettison us beyond today’s problems through fantastical schemes, do exist. But so far techno brilliance alone has not worked out well. And given the well-appointed bunkers being built in locations like New Zealand and Hawaii, it’s pretty clear our billionaire technocrats have their own share of uncertainties.

This is not an attack on technology. It has clearly brought unimaginable benefits to our lives. But unmoored from reality, or any kind of moral sensibility, even precautionary principle, technology has and is contributing to bringing us close to the edge of extinction. As stark existential realities press in around us, can we afford to be disengaged?  

A sense of dissonance has become a background fixture to our daily experience. The danger of this was highlighted in a recent essay by Jonathon Rowson, who using the example of technology, wrote “Dissonance arises from the desire to believe in technology as a shared human endeavour for the greater good, while knowing that most world-changing technologies are injected into society’s bloodstream by commercially motivated private actors, conducting simultaneous unsupervised experiments on a planetary scale.”

Our lives are saturated by such dissonant truths. But what Rowson’s observation points to is the erasure of conscience. Dissonance then becomes a dangerous precursor for indifference.

Can we afford to avoid uncomfortable, inconvenient truths? Given the climate crisis ….not really.

Colliding Realities On Edgware Road

In the spring of 1984, while sitting in one of the many outdoor Arab cafés on Edgware Road in London, I fell into conversation with a gentleman sitting alone at the next table.

Of Arab descent, he had a strong face and warm eyes. Our conversation turned to the protracted civil war raging in Lebanon at the time. As he spoke his demeanour changed. His features haunted by memories of the events he was recounting. I could sense an agony, a deep sadness in this man.

Khaled’s family home was in Jordan and his wife was from Lebanon. On a visit to her parents in Beirut, stray shrapnel hit their car and she was killed. Prior to this, he told me, they had not been involved in the civil war.

He went on to describe with extraordinary candour, and the intensity of a wounded soul, that as a result of this personal tragedy, ‘It took ten years for the bloodlust of vengeance to drain from my body. It was like a fever. I could not stop’.

Sitting there in the spring sunshine sipping coffee together, the reality of colliding worlds landed with such force, it shook me to the core. I saw how protected my life really was, how ignorant of other’s realities, how shallow my conclusions about conflicts fought in distant locations. But what struck me most was how removed I was, until that moment, from my own humanity, from the suffering endured by people caught up in conflicts far away.

Reflecting on how little has changed since that meeting, the stance my friend in Israel and others like her are taking, in breaking the cycle of grief and revenge wherever this occurs, is nothing short of revolutionary. Care, far from being a just a warm feeling, is a source of moral courage, of contextual maturity, that is at once profound, holistic, and deeply human.

The Spiritual Debate

There is another small but significant group of progressives, close to my own heart, who tend to choose to tune out from today’s challenging realities. These are the spiritual but not religious, which includes those who would identify as being interested in consciousness versus ‘the world’.

A whole generation turned Eastward in the 60’s and 70s, including myself, compelled by a utopian impulse. As cliched as this may sound today, it was true. We sought depth and meaning, purpose in what felt then like an empty world. We had the good fortune to be able to commit years to immersing ourselves in deep enquiry, engaging with spiritual mentors now long dead, doing rigorous spiritual praxis. Consciousness and universal human values became our natural lodestar.

 So, what happened? Where are our voices, our experience and insights now?

A close friend, a spiritual practitioner of many decades, recently drew on Maslow’s developmental theory to assure me that ‘transcenders’ are of a higher order of human development, being no longer motivated by any extant source, i.e. the world. He was referring to those who have access to mystical ‘peak’ experiences such as ecstasy, awe, wonder.

It’s true that during ‘peak’ experience no ‘other’ exists. But what my friend’s interpretation did not include, is that a peak experience reveals the non-divisibility of Being. And as such, it’s not really an ‘experience’, but a life-altering ontological understanding.

Science and the wisdom of indigenous cultures confirm that life consists of a web of interbeingness; one that is simultaneously sentient and intelligent. We are not separate, competing units, as early Western science led us to believe. And for this to become manifest in the world, we clearly need those who have transcended their egos, at least to some degree.

Life is complex, containing multiple ‘truths’ simultaneously. So how do we walk that line from the centre of that truth of One, through the multiple terrains of human life that radiate from this? India has a vast body of ancient dharmic texts dedicated to this question. Yet creating a division between spiritual experience and how we perceive and relate to the world, is not uncommon amongst Western spiritual practitioners, including those with an Eastern bias. 

Vimala Thakar, a 20th century Indian mystic, brilliant thinker, and social revolutionary, spoke directly to this fallacy, when thirty years ago she presciently wrote, “In this era, to become a spiritual inquirer without social consciousness is a luxury that we can ill afford, and to be a social activist without a scientific understanding of the inner workings of the mind is the worst folly. Neither approach in isolation has had any significant success.”

Daniel Pinchbeck, an American writer, also threw some valuable light on this debate. Recently drawing on another great female thinker, this time of Western origin, Hannah Arendt, he wrote, “Arendt realized that Western philosophy denigrated and rejected political thought and action. Over 2,000 years ago, Western thinking turned away from politics – from action in the world – when Socrates was accused of ‘corrupting’ the youth of Athens and executed because of his constant inquiry. The impact of this was profound for Western civilisation. It was like an original trauma, causing the split between thought and action that continues. Today, we still conceive of personal liberty as freedom from politics, rather than freedom to participate as authentic political beings.”

Hannah Arendt

Perhaps the disease of what some might call ‘liberal indifference’ is not a personal weakness, but a cultural failing. In the West, especially in the US, we are trained to seek comfort at all levels of our being, to the point where unconsciously we regard physical and emotional comfort almost as a right. To register discomfort is something we are not supposed to feel. Something to be avoided.

But this is a false message. The statuary of our cultural heroes and heroines like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Millicent Fawcett (Suffragette) for example, tower over celebrated city squares.Their moral clarity and courage in standing for their own, and humanity’s values, is valorized around the world. We intuitively recognize the inner strength and spirit that allowed those ordinary men and women to face into the rawness of the injustices they lived through, and make a difference.

Many of us falsely believe that we can keep reality at bay.

But numbness only appears to be our friend. It gives us a false sense of freedom, peace while blanketing the dissonance we actually experience in our being. At this point in my life, I am convinced that our overlooked human-ness is a source of essential strength and intelligence, indivisible from the Lifeforce itself, and thus infinite.

When we cut off and withdraw from the world, we cut off and withdraw from our selves. And this presents a danger not only to ourselves, it also leaves a void in consciousness….a void quickly filled by self-interested and destructive forces.

A Shift in Consciousness

A shift in consciousness is widely recognised as the foundation for reorientating civilization. Yet consciousness is not separate from who we are. A shift will not descend by itself. It’s contingent on our engagment with the life we are born into. An engagement that’s not careless or prescriptive, but stems from the part of us that knows what really matters, and compells us to respond. Care is an act of rebellion today. But the cost of indifference is high. It deprives us of real agency; putting us at risk of losing touch with the innate creative Intelligence that is informed by our connectedness to Life.

Many of us are walking the precarious line between fear of being swallowed by the catastrophes surrounding us, or simply cutting off. It’s often hard to imagine a third option.

The enormous significance of maintaining the light that amplifies our being, and makes us human, has become obvious in my friend. Her allegiance to Palestinian friends and colleagues in the West Bank and Gaza, to Arab friends in Israel under threat by zealots, and her care for her country’s soul, will not allow her to flee, nor succumb to instinctual tribal loyalties. Her grief is tangible, as is her strength, and the deep humanity quietly incubating within the depths of her being.

The German Chancellor, Willy Brandt falls to his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial December 1970

Care is an act of defiance in a world where caring is ridiculed and fear parades as indifference. But care is infective. Care affects consciousness. Each act, transcending the actor, contributes to a different momentum, one desperately needed.

James Baldwin once declared “The world is held together by the love and the passion of a very few people.” As true as this might have been in the past, ‘a very few people’ are just not enough today. The historicity of this moment means the future lies with each of us, together. Those who are compelled to care are like lamps in the darkness creating a pathway, a foundation for an uncertain future.

Thanks to Fromlight2Art for header image; Toa Heftiba for bearded man image; Joseph Szabo for couple image; Frederica Erra for woman by tree image; DW for the image of Willy Brandt

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Comments 4

  1. A very valuable essay, Mary, daring to engage and grapple with the heart of the crucial issues and dilemmas that we face. So true to say that care is an act of rebellion

  2. Thank you Mary for such a thoughtful and incisive dive into the moral and deeply human crises ravaging our world. You describe what I and many of us feel — pain and helplessness in the face of Gaza, Ukraine, the climate crisis — and how the challenges in making change can leave one in a vacuum. Turning away often seems like the only way to survive. But your point is so true — turning away from the world is turning away from ourselves — and we each have to grapple with that. Beautifully put: care is an act of rebellion. A single act of care is the most important political statement we can make.

  3. Yes , this is the big question – how to live our Oneness in time and space …
    A very deeply articulated and thought provoking article , Mary , thank you 🙏

  4. Thank you, Mary, for this brilliant piece so well articulated about our own inner conflict with a world that has lost its moral compass!!!

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